CNN takes heavy fire in 'running war' between Trump and the media

FILE -- In this Thursday, March 10, 2016, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, businessman Donald Trump, speaks during the Republican presidential debate sponsored by CNN, Salem Media Group and the Washington Times at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)

The "running war" between President Donald Trump and the national news media flared up again this week with CNN taking heavy fire from the president and his allies over a retracted story alleging Trump team ties to Russia and a damaging undercover video about the motivation behind CNN's White House coverage.

On Friday, CNN retracted a questionable story alleging financial ties between White House transition team member Anthony Scaramucci and a Russian investment firm. CNN's decision to pull the story and accept the resignations of its author and two editors was celebrated by the president who seized on the incident as proof that the news media is out to get him with "phony" stories about the ongoing Russia investigation.

Review a timeline of events surrounding President Trump's battle with CNN:

President Trump took to Twitter on Tuesday morning saying, "Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories. Ratings way down!"

In another tweet Trump questioned whether other news organizations would be "caught."

The three CNN journalists lost their jobs after they failed to follow standard editorial processes. The story relied on a single anonymous source claiming that Scaramucci was under investigation by Congress for Russian financial ties. After reviewing the matter, the network's investigative unit insisted that the retraction did not mean the facts of the story were necessarily wrong, just that "the story wasn't solid enough to publish as-is."

So far CNN has issued an apology for the report, including a personal apology to Scaramucci. The network disabled all links to the story, disciplined those involved in the reporting and has reportedly imposed a strict new standard requiring all content related to Russia be approved by two senior editors.

The trouble for CNN continued on Tuesday morning with the internet debut of "American Pravda," an undercover video featuring CNN supervising producer John Bonifeld acknowledging that the coverage of the Trump-Russia investigation was driven by ratings, not facts.

The video was produced by Project Veritas guerrilla journalist James O'Keefe and has quickly gone viral. In the video, Bonifeld acknowledges that there is "no smoking gun" or "real proof" of Trump collusion with Russia, but "they want to keep digging."

"I think the president is probably right to say ... you're witch-hunting me," Bonifeld continued, but the coverage continues to boost ratings. "It's a business," he said.

The CNN video is only one part of a series of videos Project Veritas is planning to release, according to O'Keefe. The second video exposing the national media will be released on Wednesday.

Trump allies have seized on the recent days' reports as evidence to support claims that CNN and others are peddling "fake news."

Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, tweeted a response to the undercover Project Veritas video saying that CNN should be "held accountable" for promoting "#fakenews" about the president. He then retweeted a suggestion that the White House revoke CNN's press credentials.

On Monday, Donald Trump, Jr. demanded CNN CEO Jeff Zucker deliver an on-camera briefing to account for the mistake, telling Breitbart News that CNN is "facing the biggest fake news scandal in the network’s history."

He suggested, "Maybe Jeff Zucker should do an on-camera press briefing about CNN’s fake news scandal before the White House does any more of them."

This fight between Donald Trump and the cable news network is not new. The two have been locked in an often bitter struggle, which has arguably done wonders for ratings.

In response to Trump's Tuesday morning tweet claiming that the network's ratings are "way down," CNN pointed out that they just posted their highest second quarter ratings in over a decade.

Over 2016, national news broadcasters like CNN saw their ratings pick up. Trump even claimed credit for the ratings boost.

Between 2015 and 2016 CNN more than doubled its viewership according to the Nielsen ratings. In the first quarter of 2017 CNN increased its viewership by more than 40 percent, and it has continued to climb in the second quarter.

Even with the election year ratings boost and the boost from the early days of Trump's presidency, Fox News continues to outpace the other national news networks, averaging more than 3 million prime time viewers.

And CNN is not the only network to realize that Trump is good for ratings.

During Trump's first 100 days in office he received the lion's share of coverage from print and broadcast news and most it was negative.

A study by Harvard's Shorenstein Center found that Donald Trump was the topic of 41 percent of all the television news stories aired on CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC, more than three-times the amount of coverage normally given to a new president. Out of the four networks, Fox was the only one that came close to giving Trump more positive coverage.

The study's author Thomas E. Patterson spoke to Sinclair Broadcast Group on Tuesday, explaining his earlier warning of an inevitable "head-on collision" between a president with historically low approval ratings and a national media with historically low levels of public trust.

"I think this is one episode out of many that speaks to that collision," he said of the reports about CNN. "I don't think we've seen the last of it."

Both the Trump White House and the press bear responsibility for the combative tone in media coverage. Patterson noted that both sides of the divide are guilty off "overkill" and "exaggeration" in how they react to one another.

"What is not unusual is a collision between the press and the president," Patterson explained. "I think the intensity of it at the moment is what defines it as being somewhat unusual."

Ultimately, the action CNN took in pulling the story and disciplining those responsible was appropriate, Patterson said. But it is a "leap in logic" to conclude that CNN's retraction of one of its Russia stories means that the investigation as a whole is discredited. is somehow discredited is "a leap in logic," Patterson noted.

"The false story doesn't prove anything about the real story is, it just may say something about the over-zealousness of some reporters and probably encouraged by some kind of mood in a news room," he added.

In his study, Patterson also warned that the increased volume in negative coverage could potentially harm the news media as a whole and its ability to hold public officials accountable. The growing perception of bias among the public, "weakens the press’s watchdog role," he concluded in the study. "The nation’s watchdog has lost much of its bite and won’t regain it until the public perceives it as an impartial broker."

Recent polls show a continued erosion of trust in the national news media. The perception of biased coverage and an individual's political party affiliation have been driving factors contributing to the historic levels of distrust.

Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided in their outlook with 87 percent of Republicans who believe that national news organizations favor one party over the other, according to the Pew Research Center. That same study also found that only about one-fifth of Americans believe the news media is doing "very well" at keeping the public informed.

The stories that emerged this week about CNN have already added fuel to partisan doubts about the trustworthiness of the news they receive on a daily basis. But the upward trend in the network's ratings suggest that this is in no way the final battle in Trump's self-proclaimed war with the media.

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